a small graphite drawing of a mouth

Tutorial: Altering Photo References and Selecting Correct Pencils

This month’s focus is on graphite because it’s one of the most versatile and resourceful mediums in an artist’s toolbox. In preparation for my next video (where I’ll be demonstrating how to create a graphite portrait in the style of Alan Lee) I thought I’d review shading techniques today. And while I’m at it, I’ll make an artist trading card out of what I draw.

What’s an artist trading card? It’s a 2.5 x 3.5 inch work of art that is made for the purpose of trading with other artists. I’ve written a post about them that you can find here. But you don’t have to know anything about them to follow along with this post today.

So let’s get started!

Finding a Reference Photo

The first thing you need when making a black and white portrait is a really good reference photo. You can, of course, draw your subject from life, but I find that having a black and white image at hand is far more useful than relying on my brain to interpret color into a grayscale image.

For today’s practice, I’ve selected this image from Pixabay. What made this mouth interesting is all the cracks and dry spots.

Courtesy of Pixabay

Mouths look tricky, but they really aren’t. You just need to know how to see the tonal values. And we can’t really see much in this photo, so let’s adjust it a bit.

Image Adjustments

The first thing I’ll do is open the photo in Photoshop or another image editing software (like Photopea). Then I make an adjustment in Hue/Saturation to bring the saturation to zero.

This is better but it’s still not very good. I can see some darks, but there aren’t very many of them. The brighter parts of the photo overwhelm all of the tones to the point where it’s really hard to distinguish different shades of gray.

Therefore, my next adjustment is in Levels.

This is the levels setting in Photoshop.

Here I will grab and move the left arrow up into the graph until I get some nice dark tones, and move the right arrow down slightly into the graph to get good highlights. I’ll then adjust the middle arrow to balance it out until I can see a full range of tonal values as shown here:

The numbers don’t matter. I look at the picture and adjust the levels until I have a full set of tonal values.

Notice the difference?

In the top photo I can distinguish 5 tones, but the light ones are pretty close in value. In the bottom photo the highlights and darkest tones definitely stand out, and in between those I can see at least 4 others.

This may show up differently on different monitors/screens. You should adjust your reference image so that you can see up to 10 different values on your monitor/screen.

Making Prints of the Image

The next step is to adjust the size of the image and make my prints. Since I’m going to trace the image, I need to adjust it to my drawing paper size. If I wasn’t going to trace it, I like to adjust it to a size slightly larger than my drawing image so that I can see the details better.

It’s common for me to make prints of many sizes for different purposes, such as an image at the traceable size, a larger image to use as reference while drawing, and an image large enough to write on. For this last print, an 8.5 x 10 is good. The resolution should be 300 ppi for the reference image. You may need to play around with your image adjustments to get an enlargement that retains details and eliminates noise. Don’t forget to make a tracing reference that is less than 3.5 x 2.5 inches if you plan on making an ATC. It’s also helpful to have the color image available.

Once I have a markable printout, I compare the tones on it to a value scale, either one I’ve made or a commercial value scale like this one. I do this by holding my value scale on top of the area I’m interested in and trying to match a tone. I then ask myself, is the value on my reference lighter or darker than that on my value card?

Matching a value scale to a tone on my reference

If it’s not a really good match, I move the value card so that the next lighter/darker tone is held against the reference image, and I keep doing this until I can’t say whether or not the printed image is lighter or darker, they’re too close in value to make a difference. Then I write that value number on the reference image right on top of the tone I matched up.

But sometimes there aren’t any values that match well. My reference image tone is somewhere in between the tones on the value scale. In that case, I have to make a judgment call.

In this example, my reference image tone is somewhere between the 4 value and the 6 value on my homemade scale. Looking through the little cut-outs in my value scale and comparing the two tones, I can see that the 4 is too light. The 6 is too dark. The 5, although not exactly a match, is the closest to the tone that I want.

So I write it on the reference. When I’m finished, my printout looks something like this:

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that just because your image is symmetrical your values will also be symmetrical. Take the time to note down all the values in the large areas.

I don’t get too detailed with this, especially for a very small drawing like what I’m doing today. But this is very helpful on larger drawings because I can immediately compare my drawing with this reference and reach for the pencil that matches. It’s also good practice at getting the eye and the brain to communicate values correctly.

Making Pencil Swatches and Choosing Pencil Grades

The next step is to use my artist pencils and the same paper I intend to use for my drawing (I’m using Bristol) to make swatches of my pencils. I start with my HB pencil because it’s right in the middle of the scale. You’ll see why in a minute.

I swatch the pencil using a medium pressure on the paper, and make another swatch with a hard pressure right next to it. Since I intend to blend out my graphite in my drawing, I also blend out this swatches.

Now I compare my pencil swatches to my value scale. For example, I have a dark HB swatch on the left and a lighter one on the right underneath my value scale.

The dark swatch closely matches my 5 value
The light swatch is just slightly lighter in value than my 4.

This shows me that my HB pencil can range from about 4 to 5 on the value scale. Looking at my marked up reference image, I see I have a lot of 5 in the middle of the top lip and near the bottom of the bottom lip. So that’s where I’ll be using that pencil.

I’ll do the same thing for all the other numbers on my value scale. This is what I ended up with for this exercise.

I didn’t have to go very far into the H scale after using the HB in order to get to a 1. But I had to use 6 pencils to get all the way from a 5 to a 10, even though I skipped the odd grades. This is why I started with the HB.

As you can see, I have some choices. I could use an HB, a 2B or a 4B to get a value tone of 5. Which should I use?

Since I like to minimize the number of pencils that I have available for a drawing, I’ll try to use a single pencil for more than one value. So I’ve chosen 5 pencils for this drawing.

Here are the other pencils I’ve chosen.

For valuesI’ll use this pencil
1, 2, 32H
4, 5HB
6, 74B
7, 86B
9, 10Mars Lumograph 6B

Notice that I can use either a 4B or a 6B pencil for a value of 7. What pencil do I choose for that?

Well, when I’m drawing, the pencil that will get used is the pencil that is in my hand. If I’m transitioning from light to dark, it’s likely I’ll stick with the 4B. I’ll use the 6B if I’m going from dark to light.

You’re probably thinking this is turning out like color-by-number. It’s not, really, because when you’re doing the actual drawing you aren’t thinking of the number on the pencil. You’re thinking “I need to go lighter here” and you reach for the pencil that’s lighter than what you’re using. Or “I need to go really dark here” and you reach for the darkest pencil in the box.

When you’ve pre-selected your range of pencils, this process becomes a lot quicker. Instead of 10 or more pencils to choose from, I now have 5, which will make it easier to pick up the right pencil without even thinking about it.

Drawing the Mouth

Okay, now that I have my pencils and I’ve looked at the the image tones in depth, let’s get started with the drawing. I transfer my image to my drawing paper so that I have an outline to work from. I used far too many lines in my tracing, but that’s okay. Putting them on my paper helped me to recognize all of the areas where I have gradients between tones. even though I know these lines will be covered as soon as I start drawing.

At the drawing table, I use a piece of blue tack to lighten my pencil marks.

Then I begin with a 2H to lightly shade everything, pressing harder where I see darker tones and using a light hand where the tones are lighter. I make sure to keep the most important lines intact, such as the ones at the parting between the lips and the one at the bottom of the bottom lip. Everything else will blend as long as the relative values are right.

The most important step in this entire process is getting the drawing right on the paper, and since I traced it, I’m not worried about having done that correctly.

But this is the second most important step. This is how I create the foundation that my eye will use for the rest of the drawing. From here to the end, I’m simply looking at the reference image and then at my own drawing, comparing the values, and making adjustments.

I blend all of this out with a tortillon, and use a paper towel under my hand to keep from accidentally smudging the graphite.

Then I go over the darkest areas with my darkest pencil.

Using the tortillon, I blend out and into the areas of the next lighter tone.

Sometimes this is all that is needed to get a good gradient.

I then use the other pencils to add more tone where needed, blend them, and use an eraser to lighten areas that are too dark. The process is:

  • compare values,
  • add pencil or use eraser to adjust my drawing,
  • blend,
  • and repeat.

I keep a sharp contrast between the bottom of the bottom lip and the surrounding skin, and also at the top of the bottom lip (where the mouth parts). But the top of the top lip is kept very soft, just blended into the skin at the top.

Comparing values. In this case I had to add tone.
Blending out with a blending stump (a kind of tortillon).
Sometimes I use tissue to get smoother blends.
Lifting out details with an eraser on the bottom lip.
Retouching and adding more tone.
Putting in the “cracks” on the lip with a very sharp hard pencil.

When it’s finished, I spray it with a fixative and cut the card to size. If you don’t have fixative, be really careful not to touch your work. It’s really easy to smudge graphite!

Finally, I put my card details on the back and slip it into a sleeve.

It’s now ready to show or trade!

Last Bits of Advice

Honestly, the only way to figure out what you need to do to get the right shading is to practice. But here are 5 tips for practicing more efficiently:

  • Use a small drawing size (smaller than 5 x 7 inches)
  • Draw a simple subject, such as a piece of fruit, a single flower, a hand, a coffee cup, etc.
  • Don’t worry about making an unintentional mark. That’s what erasers are for.
  • Don’t stop too soon. Most of the time, if the drawing isn’t looking right, it just means you’re not finished. It took well over an hour to draw these lips at a size to fit a 3.5 in x 2.5 in card. It would’ve taken longer if this was a larger drawing.

This is a lot of fun and easier than it looks! I hope these instructions weren’t too confusing. If you do have any questions, please leave a comment below and I’ll try to answer them.

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